Astra Taylor

How Companies Turn Your Facebook Activity Into a Credit Score

Nicole Keplinger, 22, had long seen ads on Facebook promising financial relief, but she always ignored them and assumed that they were scams. Keplinger was drowning in student debt after obtaining a worthless degree from the for-profit Everest College, whose parent corporation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., had recently collapsed under accusations of fraud and predatory lending. But when an offer arrived in her e-mail inbox in April—“Cut your student loan payment or even forgive it completely!”—she thought it seemed more legitimate than the rest, so she called the number.

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For-Profit Colleges Are America's Dream Crushers

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Whatever Happened to the Good Life?

Since we're accustomed to thinking of young people and students as the shock troops of social change, explaining youthful inertia has become a national preoccupation (sadly, we expect impassivity from the middle aged). Many point to the absence of a draft as a motivating factor. Others cite the lack of contemporary examples of successful collective action to inspire faith in the efficacy of protest. But more often than not, the problem is conceived as cultural. The emerging generation, of which I am part, is post-Watergate, post-Monica Lewinsky, and weaned on irony and satire. We expect the government to deceive us and are hardly surprised, let alone outraged, when these expectations are met. Others argue that young people aren't particularly self-absorbed or apathetic; they're overworked and indebted. Today's twenty- and thirty-somethings are so busy struggling to make ends meet, they simply don't have time to take to the streets.

The latter theory has gained traction with the recent publication of three thoughtfully argued books: Tamara Straut's Strapped, Anya Kamenetz's Generation Debt, and Daniel Brook's The Trap (subtitled Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America). Compared to our parents at the same age, these authors contend, we're working longer hours for less money, reduced job security, slashed benefits and fewer social services. Over the last four decades, opportunities for social mobility have declined dramatically, with wealth concentrating to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age.

In other words, it's getting harder and harder to stay -- let alone join -- America's crumbling middle class. Today's minimum wage is worth 30 percent less than it was in 1968. According to Draut, "if wages had kept pace with rising productivity between 1968 and 2000, the average hourly wage would have been $24.56 in 2000, rather than $13.74." Instead -- and particularly in fields with a social service component -- salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation and benefits, like health insurance or retirement funds, are elusive rarities. Meanwhile the cost of living has skyrocketed. Between 1995 and 2002, median rents in urban centers like San Francisco, Boston, and New York surged by sixty or seventy percent. The price tag on a simple studio in these cities is well over a thousand dollars a month. Finally, a college degree, often regarded as the key to a middle class lifestyle, costs more than ever before. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many quality public universities were free, Pell Grants covered nearly three-quarters of college tuition; today, the percentage has fallen to one-third. At the same time, tuition has outpaced inflation three times over since 1980. As a result, the average student leaves a four-year college with over $20,000 in educational debt; a graduate degree means $45,000.

As a member of "generation debt," I know these frustrations firsthand. It's hard to feel footloose when your owe $40,000 in student loans and haven't even started chipping away at the interest. I've had to move back in with Mom and Dad when housing costs were too much to cover. I haven't had health insurance in eight years and saving for retirement isn't even on the horizon. But are things that bad? Am I really so oppressed? Unlike twenty percent of the world's population, my basic necessities are covered. I've got food, clothing, shelter, and then some. I'm typing this on a G4 titanium laptop. I have a cellphone. I've traveled the world.

The fact is, even though young people today are making less, we're spending more. Between 1979 and 1990, the spending of the average person working for minimum wage increased by 30 percent. Generation Y has an inordinate amount of buying power in the United States: $175.1 billion dollars per year, much of which is wielded during the twenty plus hours a week they're online. And supposedly we have no time for activism? It makes sense that in a society where young people carry supersized debt, they expect a supersized lifestyle. Though generally inhabited by fewer people, the typical new American home is 40 percent larger than it was 25 years ago. The same period has seen the quadrupling of retail space per capita, which says something profound about rates of consumption. Jumbo SUVs, loaded with luxury options, make up half of all private vehicles on the road. Pleasure and vacation travel have become standard. Air conditioning in dorm rooms, a smorgasbord of dining options, extravagant fitness centers to work off those extra calories -- all amenities unimaginable back when college was cheap.

Since the mid-seventies, when experts starting keeping track, Americans' definition of the "good life" has become increasingly materialistic. Over the years, the good life has become more likely to include a home, a vacation home, a car, a second car, a color TV, a second color TV, travel abroad, designer clothes, a pool, a job that pays more than average, lots of money, and so on. Immaterial responses -- a happy marriage, children, interesting work, and a job that contributes to the welfare of society -- have either flat-lined or become less popular over the years.

And it's not that people simply want more; they claim to need more. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that the list of things "we can't live without" has grown steadily since 1973. Many things Americans currently consider necessities didn't even exist a generation ago. Cell phones weren't on the survey in 1996, but are now considered essential by 57 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 (8 percent of the same group considers their iPod to be a necessity, not a luxury). In only ten years, the percentage of adults who consider a microwave oven a necessity has more than doubled, to 68 percent. Home air conditioning has climbed from 51 percent to 70 percent in necessity status, and the position of clothes dryers ascended twenty points as well. It's also worth noting that, according to Pew, "the more income a person has, the more likely he or she is to view goods and gadgets as necessities rather than luxuries." The richer you are, in other words, the more you need.

As economist Juliet Schor has explained, consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction "depend less on what a person has in an absolute sense than on socially formed aspirations and expectations." That is to say, even the objectively upper-class can believe themselves beleaguered because they're ogling opulent plutocrats. Take a recent article in the New York Times pitying "millionaires who don't feel rich" in Silicon Valley. "Everyone around here looks at the people above them," complains a tycoon of substantial means. "You're nobody here at $10 million." Today's citizens aren't "keeping up with the Joneses," they're keeping up with the ultra-affluent, an unrelentingly upwardly mobile target that shapes the hopes and dreams of everyone below them.

Thus it's no surprise that young people's expectations have expanded over the years. In 1967, 45 percent of college freshman reported that being well-off financially was important; by 2004 the number ballooned to 74 percent. Critics take this as conclusive proof of Generation Y's insatiable materialism, while more sympathetic observers point out that such an attitude is simply a practical response to ever-rising costs of living. Young people aren't greedier than their predecessors, argue Draut, Kamenetz, and Brook, they simply need more money to make ends meet; which is why they have to work so much; which is why they have no time to spare; which at least partly accounts for the paltry state of progressive politics in the US.

The problem is, social movements have long been made by people far worse off than our indebted generation, a fact driven home on a recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico. I met a group of women, many in their mid-twenties and most with children, employed by the foreign-owned factories along the border. They work sixty hours a week assembling televisions and other widgets for American consumers, often for as little as six dollars a day. They live in little shacks made of scrap wood, recycled pallets, and old tires. Their homes lack running water. These women have no money and no free time, yet they have organized themselves into a collective and are effectively advocating for environmental justice in their community. Returning to the US from Tijuana, it was as though I could suddenly see clearly: our "necessities" appeared to me as what they really are -- luxuries. I have no doubt there is an element of social control built into the massive educational debt imposed on young Americans today. But I also believe social change requires sacrifice -- and imagination. We need to reevaluate the supposed "necessity" of higher education (especially people interested in the humanities, the arts, and in social change, who may find the fortune they spend on tuition could be more fruitfully invested elsewhere), envision new standards of "success," redefine the "good life," and figure out creative ways to share costs by reinvigorating old ideas (housing, food, and vehicle co-ops come to mind). Above all, we need to remember that our single biggest luxury, our salient self-indulgence, is acquiescence, and that it comes at too high a price.

Military Waste In Our Drinking Water

In 1982 our family was living on the southside of Tucson, Ariz., in a primarily working class and Latino neighborhood not far from the airport. That year Sunaura was born with a congenital birth defect known as arthrogryposis, a condition that severely impedes muscle growth and requires her to use an electric wheelchair. On nearby blocks, women were giving birth to babies with physical disabilities and neighbors were dying of cancer at worrisome rates. Over time, we learned that our groundwater was contaminated.

Most of us are vaguely aware that war devastates the environment abroad. The Vietnamese Red Cross counts 150,000 children whose birth defects were caused by their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. Cancer rates in Iraq are soaring as a result of depleted uranium left from the Gulf War. But what about closer to home?

Today the U.S. military generates over one-third of our nation's toxic waste, which it disposes of very poorly. The military is one of the most widespread violators of environmental laws. People made ill by this toxic waste are, in effect, victims of war. But they are rarely acknowledged as such.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were living together in New York City. In the months following the attack on the World Trade Center, the media and government routinely informed a fearful citizenry of the importance of clean drinking water. Terrorists, they warned, might contaminate public sources with arsenic. We were instructed to purchase Evian along with our duct tape.

In 2003, when the Defense Department sought (and later received) exemptions from America's main environmental laws, the irony dawned on us. The military was given license to pollute air and water, dispose of used munitions, and endanger wildlife with impunity. The Defense Department is willing to poison the very citizens it is supposed to protect in the cause of national security.

Our family knows of something much more dangerous than arsenic in the public aquifers: trichloroethylene, or TCE, a known carcinogen in laboratory animals and the most widespread industrial contaminant in American drinking water.

Disturbingly common

Last week a study was released by the National Academy of Sciences, raising already substantial concerns about the cancer risks and other health hazards associated with exposure to TCE, a solvent used in adhesives, paint and spot removers that is also "widely used to remove grease from metal parts in airplanes and to clean fuel lines at missile sites." The report confirms a 2001 EPA document linking TCE to kidney cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, impaired neurological function, autoimmune disease and other ailments in human beings.

The report has been garnering some publicity, but not as much as it deserves. TCE contamination is disturbingly common, especially in the air, soil and water around military bases. Nationwide millions of Americans are using what Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-NY, has called "TCE-laden drinking water." The Associated Press reports that the chemical has been found at about 60 percent of the nation's worst contaminated sites in the Superfund cleanup program.

"The committee found that the evidence on carcinogenic risk and other health hazards from exposure to trichloroethylene has strengthened since 2001," the study says. "Hundreds of waste sites are contaminated with trichloroethylene, and it is well-documented that individuals in many communities are exposed to the chemical, with associated health risks."

The report urges the EPA to amend its assessment of the threat TCE poses, an action that could lead to stricter regulations. Currently the EPA limits TCE to no more than five parts per billion parts of drinking water. Stricter regulation could force the government to require more thorough cleanups at military and other sites and lower the number to one part per billion.

The EPA found it impossible to take such action back in 2001, because, according to the Associated Press, the agency was "blocked from elevating its assessment of the chemical's risks in people by the Defense Department, Energy Department and NASA, all of which have sites polluted with it." The Bush administration charged the EPA with inflating TCE's risks and asked the National Academy to investigate. Contrary to the administration's hopes, however, the committee's report has reinforced previous findings, which determined TCE to be anywhere from two to 40 times more carcinogenic than previously believed.

Thousands contaminated

We didn't know it when we lived there, but our Tucson neighborhood's public water supply was one of thousands nationwide contaminated with TCE (along with a medley of other toxic chemicals including, ironically, arsenic). It wasn't terrorists who laced our cups and bathtubs with these poisons -- it was private contractors employed by the Air Force.

Beginning during the Korean War, military contractors began using industrial solvents, including TCE, to degrease airplane parts. Hughes Missiles Systems Co. (which was purchased by the Raytheon Corp. in 1997) worked at the Tucson International Airport, spilling chemicals off the runway and letting them sink into the soil of a city entirely dependent on its underground water supply. What didn't seep into the earth was dumped into unlined pits scraped into the desert floor. Over the course of many years Hughes used barrels and barrels of TCE at the airport hangars and at weapons system manufacturing facilities on government-owned and contractor-operated land not far from where we lived. As late as 1985, 2,220 pounds of TCE was still being dumped in Tucson landfills every month.

Like so many other toxic hotspots, Tucson's southside is primarily a working-class community called home by many people of color. It is situated near the San Xavier Indian reservation, which also had residential areas affected by runoff.

Generally, fines associated with hazardous waste laws are up to six times higher in white communities than their minority counterparts. What has happened in Tucson since the early '80s reflects this unevenness. There has been only one legal case against the military and its cohorts, a lengthy personal-injury lawsuit filed in behalf of 1,600 people against the aircraft manufacturer, the city of Tucson and the Tucson Airport Authority (citizens are not allowed to sue the federal government over such matters). The case excluded thousands of potential plaintiffs and did not include funds from which future claimants could collect for illnesses like cancers, which typically do not appear until 10 or 20 years after chemical exposure. As a result, many southside residents have yet to be compensated and probably never will be. To this day, some area wells remain polluted, and most estimate cleanup will not be completed for another 20 to 50 years. Meanwhile, residents have the small consolation their water supply is being monitored.

The National Academy of Sciences study is a step in the right direction, but one that will certainly be met with resistance. In Tucson, because the lawsuit was settled out of court, none of the defendants had to admit that TCE is carcinogenic. Instead of acknowledging the link between TCE and local health problems, officials blamed the smoking and eating habits of local residents and said their cancer was the result of "eating too much chili." It was suggested to our parents, who are white, that Sunaura's birth defect may have been the consequence of high peanut butter consumption.

But people who have lived on the southside of Tucson don't need experts to verify that TCE is deadly. Some estimate that up to 20,000 individuals have died, become ill, or been born with birth defects. Providing further proof, the Tucson International Airport area is one of the EPA's top Superfund sites. Arizona state guidelines also assert that TCE is toxic; they say one gallon of TCE is enough to render undrinkable the amount of water used by 3,800 people over an entire year. Over 4,000 gallons drained into Tucson aquifers. As a result of this week's report, Arizona's environmental quality chief says the state is independently and immediately going to adopt stricter TCE soil standards.

It's an ugly truth that manufacturing weaponry to kill abroad also kills at home. The process involves toxic chemicals, metals and radioactive materials. As a consequence, the U.S. military produces more hazardous waste annually than the five largest international chemical companies combined. The Pentagon is responsible for over 1,400 properties contaminated with TCE.

Citizens, who pay for the military budget with their tax dollars, are also paying with their health and sometimes their lives.


Happy Holidays!